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Interview with DJ Rekha of Basement Bhangra

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with Interview Rekha Basement Bhangra

Interview with DJ Rekha of Basement Bhangra

by Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis
August 4, 2017

DJ Rekha (Nisha Sondhe)

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Interview with DJ Rekha

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On Saturday, July 23, The Cedar and Ragamala Dance Company hosted New York-based DJ Rekha with DJ Chamun, in the Twin Cities for their third time, this time in celebration of Ragamala's 25th anniversary, as well DJ Rekha's 20th and final chapter of her renowned Basement Bhangra.

Due to some good fortune (shout-out to my roommate, Sarah, who works for Ragamala Dance Company), I had the honor to sit down and chat with DJ Rekha, the pioneer of Bhangra music in North America, whom Newsweek has recognized as one of the most influential South Asian people in the U.S.

In this interview, we discuss her DJ origins, her artistic evolution, celebrating 20 years of Basement Bhangra, her relationship with Minnesota's own Ragamala Dance Company, as well as a look into her future endeavors. Listen to the full audio above, and follow along with the transcription below.

Jeff: So, I'm Jeffrey Bissoy-Mattis, I'm the APM reports Fellow and I'm here with DJ Rekha, thank you so much for having me.

DJ REKHA: Thank you for talking to me.

J: We are here for the 25th anniversary of Ragamala Dance Company, and rumor has it also 20 years of Basement Bhangra as well.

R: That's right.

J: So tell us a little bit about Basement Bhangra for some who may not know about it. What is it and what [does it] incorporate?

R: Sure. Basement Bhangra is a club night I started in New York City in 1997 in a response to musical directives I was getting from other folks at the time. I was starting out DJ-ing, at the time my gigs were mostly with other South Asian promoters, and they would always tell me, "Don't play too much black music, don't play too much hip hop, don't play too much Bhangra or Panjabi music"; I mean, those words can be used interchangeably at times, because we don't want lower-class people in our community: Panjabi music was seen as cab driver music, Hip-Hop was seen as thug music, still is, nothing has changed. Like, "You can play hip hop but don't play trap, you can play Drake but don't play Migos."

There's always a policing of sound, and so the idea about Basement Bhangra came to create a space that embraced both Hip-Hop and Bhangra. It's primarily Bhangra, but the Bhangra I was influenced by at the time and that I wanted to play, most of it was being produced in the U.K., and had a lot dance-hall synergy, a lot of hip hop, and so it mixes very well with those styles and being from New York and of an age when I saw Hip-Hop emerge, it's really close to my heart. That's really what Basement Bhangra is, it's a space that is open to anyone who likes to dance, we do a dance lesson there as well. Through the years we've a had many resident DJs, live performers over time, and it's been 20 years and we're ending our party. So we are going to do one final show, one big concert in Central Park on August 6th, with Apache Indian, Panjabi MC, a lot of rising talent from North America.

J: Alright, so 20 years coming to an end in Central Park, I'm going to see if I can try and get a ticket.

R: The show is free, you just got to get to New York.

J: So you look back at your 20 years, what has been your evolution as a DJ, what has been the impact of your shows on different generations and audience members?

R: Well, it's hard to sum up 20 years. To look at my personal evolution as an artist, my career barely started and so for me, I've just had tremendous, tremendous creative opportunities — everything from working on Broadway to public radio, to remixing such a range of artists from Meredith Monk; I always like to say "from Meredith Monk to Priyanka Chopra." And getting to travel and getting to meet and see people who this party has meant a lot to. Seeing people being inspired by Basement and doing their own thing.n

J: So, my next question is what has been your proudest in these past 20 years?

R: The proudest moment in 20 years? The proudest moment in the history of Basement Bhangra, — not my life, not everything — was when, I don't know, there's so many moments it's so hard. I'll say one, I hate being definitive, one of the proudest moments was when Malkit Singh performed at S.O.B's at Basement. Because Malkit Singh is a vocalist who originally started me on this journey in the sense that I heard his music for the first time as a teenager and it blew me away, and I fell in love with his music and I admired him for many years and finally got the opportunity for him to perform, and then he eventually did another show at Lincoln Center. But that was just amazing for me.

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